Can Courage Be Taught?
Last week, I outlined my aspirations for the Academy of Chivalry. This week I want to elaborate on one of the highest goals of our school: to train young men to be courageous.
But can courage be taught?
So long as one thinks of teaching in terms of a Certified Educational Professionals drilling concepts and information into the brains of children in a classroom, the answer is most emphatically NO. Well-fed functionaries delivering Powerpoint slides and waxing bureaucratic will convince no one. Incongruity between the content and the context is too much.
Courage is all the more difficult to teach in a society that apparently doesn’t know what it is or what it’s for. If I had asked any of my teachers what courage is, I’m guessing the question would have puzzled them, forcing an honest shrug. Or perhaps they’d have a trite soundbite prepared: “Courage isn’t the absence of fear—it’s acting in the face of it,” or something like that—which is good and true and all, but it doesn’t come close to answering the question. More than anything, my teachers would have wondered why I was asking. The message behind the hypothetical platitude and shrug being: “Don’t worry about it.”
A far more important imperative of my education was safety, and recent events have demonstrated the absolute supremacy of safetyism in our regime. What is the use of courage when the most important thing in life is to stay safe at all costs so as to achieve maximal consumption—of Marvel movies, pizza, beer, basketball games, rounds of golf, orgasms, whatever? Courage, then, is less of a virtue than a threat to the good life, causing you to potentially do something unsafe. Tolerate no risk. Run and hide from danger. Live to consume another day.
(I can’t resist the urge to crack a joke about how such consequences inevitably follow when the anthem of a generation challenges us to imagine a world in which there’s “nothing to kill or die for.”)
Courage is not cultivated in young men through pep talks, inspirational speeches, PowerPoint slides, nagging reminders, or anything of the sort—especially not when those pep talks cut against the larger assumptions about life that are reinforced daily in a thousand unspoken ways.
Before anything else, young men must first be given a reason—and this starts with convincing them that maximal consumption is not the ultimate purpose of their lives. We were made to strive and build and fight for worthy causes. A failure to strive means something short of life. “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage,” as Anais Nin wrote. CS Lewis penned an equally memorable line: “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.” This highest reality is where life is to be lived.
Thus, the education of young cavaliers must begin with establishing that there are dragons out there, real and metaphorical, and that heroes must strive to kill them. Such a life is inherently superior to a life of sitting back on a fluffy coach and firing up the latest Star Wars series on Disney Plus. Having established that, we can proceed to building the habits, dispositions, and attachments of the heart that conduce to courage.
Prayer and worship—
Because we are created beings, our courage will ultimately originate not in ourselves. All strength comes from God, strength of the heart not excepted. Open to almost any page of the Bible and you’ll find calls to courage and see instances of men and women of faith proceeding boldly.
— Deuteronomy 31:6—“Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.”
— Proverbs 28:1—“The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion.”
— Acts 4:31—“And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.”
Praying to God for courage, we can trust that He will deliver—and that he wants us to be brave. Moreover, there is courage to be derived simply by putting things in proper perspective: if you love the Lord and understand your ultimate and eternal destiny, the villains and petty tyrants of this world become less impressive and imposing. They may do their worst, but their worst just isn’t that bad.
Fearfulness before the Lord Almighty, boldness in the face of men—this will be trained at the Academy of Chivalry. We will have a chaplain to say Mass on Sunday and throughout the week. Our lives and our work will be steeped in the ethos of muscular Christianity.
The study of heroic examples—
We atomized moderns often mistake courage as an individual phenomenon rather than a social virtue. The courageous man usually has loved ones who depend on him, friends who have his back, and a tradition that cultivates and honors courage. Being so social, courage has a contagious quality. When people see it in action, often they find it in themselves.
History and legend are places to turn for such examples of real men of action. The Academy of Chivalry will unabashedly venerate heroes like Roland, Charlemagne, Leonidas, Hector, Richard Coeur de Lion, Aragorn, Faramir, El Cid, and others, loving them for their greatness. If we internalize stories of those who loved courage and heroism more than they loved safety and decadence, their values might just become ours.
The key is to remove any sense of inevitability that a backwards glance can impose on the story. This is key to the teaching of history, or so it always seemed to me. Just because things turned out the way they did doesn’t mean they had to do so. Determinism needs to be dispelled. We need to be there with the hero at the moment of crisis, to understand what was at stake, to consider the difficulties and choices before him. Only then can we appreciate.
Cultivation of the right fears—
Aristotle teaches that courage is not the same as fearlessness. He adds that it is good and right to fear disgrace, for example, that it does not make a man cowardly to do so, and that the man who does not fear disgrace is not brave but shameless.
Going further, a man’s fear of disgrace can be a powerful spur to great deeds. This isn’t exactly the same as courage, but it can be a helpful component, a high rung on a ladder that climbs to courage. However afraid we might be to take action, our fear of disgrace tells us that inaction brings its own consequences, even more severe. To falter in that moment because we were afraid means that others, whose good opinions we care for, will know that were faltered in the face of fear. Worse still, we ourselves will know and will have to live with it.
The culture at our school will reinforce these correct fears. We will constantly remind ourselves that there worse things than danger, worse things than death even. Death before disgrace—which is another way of saying that something terrible happening to us (death) is not as awful as bringing something terrible upon ourselves (disgrace). Those who meditate on this regularly will be better prepared for the moment of decision.
Other fears can be similarly fruitful: fear of harm being done to our loved ones, fear of disappointing the Lord, fear of wasting precious opportunities that may never come again. Action can and should follow from good fears.
Friendships with good men—
As I mentioned above, courage is a highly social virtue. In addition to increasing our courage by simply having our back, friends also provide the invaluable service of threatening to make fun of us if we do something cowardly.
We frequently talk of “peer pressure” leading people to do bad things, like when an impressionable middle-schooler tries cigarettes because some of the cool kids encouraged it. If only we didn’t have peer pressure, we’d all be better—so went the narrative of my education. Very well, peer pressure can indeed lead to questionable things. But peer pressure can also compel people to do good things. The pursuit of virtue is not a solitary one; the key is in making the right friends, the right people to apply good pressure.
Our school will be a place where such friendships are made, and the instructors will model such devotion and camaraderie.
Students at the Academy of Chivalry will train hard, will become young men of prowess. Though courage is ultimately a spiritual virtue, it is intricately connected to the physical world; in other words, it is far easier to be a courageous man when you are also a strong man. Such training not only increases your likelihood of success in those moments of peril, and thus your willingness to risk your neck, but it also unlocks something deep inside you, a boldness that makes you want to test yourself and prove what's you’re made of.
What this does not mean: that every man with a 3-plate squat will be courageous and every scrawny man cowardly. But the same man, having cultivated his prowess, will be more assured of himself and readier.
Regular exposure to danger and discomfort—
We ought not presume we will be able to muster courage in the big moments of life if we don’t also practice mustering courage in the less momentous times. In other words, we must make courage a habit. At the Academy of Chivalry, we will constantly challenge students and instructors to rise to the challenge of facing danger and discomfort—coming to understand that these dangers and discomforts are often less than we imagine them to be.
Martial arts and physical training, as I mentioned above, are part of that strategy. There’s nothing like standing before someone who wants to punch you. Public speaking is another, fasting another. Gurus who prescribe cold showers might get a little obnoxious, but cold showers might also help some people toughen up. So the hot water at our school might mysteriously be not working one day, or some sort of regular polar plunges will be incorporated.
Yes, I daresay you can teach courage, though perhaps the better terms would be train or instill or cultivate. It’s not a matter of classroom lessons or lectures, but of building a way of life that encourages and honors necessary action in the face of danger.